Published by: Bloomsbury August 2019
As someone who had little knowledge of what a mudlark was before reading this book it is really useful that Lara Maiklem opens with the following definition from the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles: ‘ A person who scavenges for usable debris in the mud of a river or harbour.’ This rather formal definition does not do justice to just how enthralling I found this book to be. In fact it is so enthralling that the author has dedicated a huge portion of her life to the activity. The insight into mudlarking demonstrates a world that demands patience, a highly attuned eye and physical stamina.
‘Mudlarking’ is divided into chapters that are place names along the River Thames. It is clear Maiklem is familiar with the nuances and landscapes of each of the places and she draws you alongside the river with her explaining astutely the idiosyncrasies of each place, how time, human habitation and the river itself have moulded that particular setting. Scouring the riverbeds, constrained by tidal timings feels incredibly exciting and tense however Maiklem also writes about the calmness and therapeutic elements of the endeavour. She has had to develop keener senses, and an ability to let go of modernity around her always trying to listen to the secrets the river has to tell. It was really refreshing to hear these stories from the perspective of a female and my initial question and concern in the opening chapters was that the author was incredibly vulnerable in these open spaces at night or dawn, that she has to sacrifice her safety in someway to take part in this activity that she is so clearly dedicated to. Maiklem addresses this in the book and explains how she has made the necessary precautions such as a fully charged phone, alarm or the accompaniment of a friend in particularly tempestuous or isolated areas. It did strike me however that this was something that felt had to be addressed because of the author’s gender raising some interesting questions and thoughts about how women can occupy these spaces on equal footing with men.
The discoveries made by the author were truly remarkable. Each item offered a key into the past and illustrated the sheer number of individuals who had once lived or travelled through the vast city. Once example was the discovery of a Victoria Cross which, after some research, was found to belong to Private John Byrne. The identification of the object’s owner and finding out about his melancholy fate was particularly poignant. Some owners of objects found are untraceable however, lost to time and seasons and these items pull forth imaginings of who might have owned these objects and what the reasons might have been to abandon them to the river. The discovery of the bodkin in Trig Lane is one example and it works to make the book have a haunted feel. This is most prevalent at Tilbury where Maiklem documents the screaming of the shards of pottery belonging to frustrated housewives and broken toys belonging to the tantrums of children.
The river itself seems to be the omnipresent character in this book however, sometimes a beautiful compelling entity but also unforgiving and uncaring about human endeavour. The mark humanity is leaving though is undeniable. Litter and pollution occupy all the shores, leaving an urgency and an open question as to what the fate of both humanity and the river itself will be in the near future. An utterly compelling and fascinating read.